Explosive Hancock looks to return to form

Hancock's Alex Nordstrom returns as one of the leaders for the Bulldogs. (Daver Karnosky/Daily Mining Gazette)

HANCOCK — Under normal circumstances, Hancock head coach Dan Rouleau likes to think of his hockey team as being the underdog. It has worked for him throughout his career as the Bulldogs are consistently in the discussion every season, even when they are not expected to be.

That all changed two years ago when the Bulldogs rode a pair of hot hands and some stellar goaltending to a Division 3 state title.

While he doesn’t like to think he has the team to beat, Rouleau is quick to point out that last season’s first-round playoff loss to the eventual state runner-up, Calumet Copper Kings, could have been due more to the loss of his two senior defensemen to injury than anything else.

“You want your best guys playing at the end of the year and we didn’t have our best guys,” said Rouleau. “We’re not going to use that as an excuse, but it is what it is. That is tough to overcome for anybody.”

He has a point.

His top line last season, sophomore center Alex Nordstrom, junior winger Teddy Randell and senior winger Lance Kangas, combined for 132 points. Nordstrom and Randell are back for their third season together this year. The Bulldogs’ “dynamic duo” is dangerous no matter what situation they find themselves in.

Last season, they combined for nine power-play goals and 21 power-play points. Shorthanded, they racked up another five goals and seven points.

“They do have the potential to dominate,” said Rouleau. “When they are on the penalty kill, we are dangerous.”

Nordstrom has 109 points over two seasons with Hancock. Randell has 118 over three seasons. No matter what they do in their final season together, they will go down as one of the most prolific pairs of skaters in Bulldogs’ history.

“They are way above the curve,” said Rouleau. “They are two of the best kids in the state, not just in the U.P. I really believe that.”

While the duo is back, a huge chunk of the Bulldogs’ depth graduated last season, which will change things up for this season. The first question when discussing team depth is simple: who will skate on their wing?

One possible fit will be junior winger Bryce Randell, younger brother of Teddy. Bryce had a nice season on the Bulldogs’ third line last season, scoring four goals and seven points. However, Rouleau feels that, for the moment, he wants to see if he can get the younger Randell some more puck touches by placing him on Hancock’s second line alongside sophomore center Colton Salani and freshman winger Austin Salani.

“He’s going to handle the puck a whole lot more on that line,” said Rouleau. “I know Bryce would be better handling the puck more.”

That means the job of the wing on the top unit will fall on the shoulders of newcomer Peter Anderson, a big-bodied power forward who should add some physicality to the group.

The Salani brothers will likely anchor the second line. Colton had a strong freshman campaign, scoring four goals and 17 points. He also possesses the ability to play defense, giving Rouleau options on the power play and penalty kill as necessary.

Austin joins the Bulldogs after a strong junior hockey career. Unlike his calm brother, Austin tends to be a more passionate player and possesses the type of shot coaches love to see.

On the back end, the losses of seniors Tommy Randell and Tanner Givens for most of the last season to injury forced sophomore Teddy Perrault and juniors Jakob Vettori, Tyler Turcotte and Tyler Brunet into much bigger roles than they might have been ready for. The quartet played well and developed over the course of the season.

This year, Perrault, now a junior, Vettori and Turcotte will be looked upon to act as leaders.

Perrault, who scored two goals and seven points last season, can push the pace of the game with his offensive skill set. Rouleau likes how he can take over a game by quickly turning an opponent’s dump-in into a rush the other direction.

“Teddy is such a good skater,” said Rouleau. “Not only is he up on the rush, but he is back, getting pucks out of your end. He can get back to pucks and all of a sudden the forecheck stops.”

Vettori and Turcotte needed much of last season to adjust to the speed of the varsity game, but both proved valuable by the end of the season.

“I thought Jakob Vettori made some good strides last year,” said Rouleau. “Tyler, if his whole head is in the game, he can be physical. The sky is the limit for those guys.”

Behind the defensive corps, the Bulldogs have arguably the best goaltender in the state in senior Dawson Kero, who was an All-State selection as a sophomore. While his numbers were down last season, it is safe to say that was a result of an early-season injury and the inexperience in front of him for most of the season. He finished the season going 11-8-0 with a 2.62 goals against average and a .910 save percentage.

What really impresses Rouleau about Kero is how he handles various moments in a hockey game.

“He’s won a state championship, he’s been an All-State goalie,” said Rouleau. “If we do have a breakdown, he can beat a team by himself. He gives you a chance to win every night.”

Kero’s partner, Cam Murray, graduated last season and is now plying his trade at Finlandia. Junior Phillip Rios is the new backup this season. Rouleau likes what he sees out of Rios thus far and expects to work him into the lineup.

The Bulldogs open their season with a pair of games against rival Calumet in the Copper Island Classic. Afterwards, they face another rival in Houghton and then Hartland. Three games after that, they will host Brother Rice and then Marquette, so Rouleau’s team will know by then just how competitive it will be this season. Rouleau likes the challenge and believes that it will strengthen the resolve of his team.